By KAREN MOE, August, 2018
The paintings of Juan Miguel Pozo Cruz (Pozo) never stop moving. Born in Cuba in 1967, part of the first generation of the post-revolutionary diaspora, living through the “Special Period” of extreme economic hardship, defecting to Berlin in 1995 and not being able to return to his homeland until 20 years later, it is not surprising that an essence of upheaval is the foundation for much of Pozo’s work. Nevertheless, such an untenable stillness is not disturbing; rather, his paintings contain an uncanny familiarity that can calm with the honesty of nothing ever being fixed.
Pozo’s latest body of work is all about storms. Finally being able to return to Cuba in 2016, he started working on a series that, in his words, was the first time he had touched on a topic so directly Cuban since his exile. Named after the title of Jean Paul Sartre’s 1960 celebratory account of the Cuban Revolution, Hurricane over Sugar, Pozo told me how, having lived through the reality of the revolution’s aftermath, “Sartre had it all wrong.” What Pozo was drawn to is the title of the book. In our interview, he explained to me how literally, historically and culturally, “the hurricane is an ideal metaphor for the Cuban national psyche. The very familiarity with this meteorological phenomenon marks the essence of Cubans because it imposes on them that exhausting challenge wherein they have no choice but to rise against adversity.” Hurricane over Sugar, the Cuban artist’s first exhibition in his homeland in over twenty years, was shown at Galería de Art y Proyecto Cultural in Havana in the Fall of 2017.
After the Storm, exhibited at Mexico’s GE Galería from May 24th to August 10th, 2018, is both a continuation of the storm and a gesture of faux closure. Despite the impetus of the work originating in the personal history of the artist, the hurricane extends well beyond himself and the shores of Cuba. Expanding upon the metaphor of the hurricane, the artist explains how: “It alludes to something that goes by, but especially to what it leaves behind: the threat of returning and the challenge of surviving it.” His paintings are hurricanes manifested in paint that are composed of before, during and after—and always the impending possibility of back again. In Pozo’s work, nothing is allowed to settle.
When the young artist left Cuba for Germany in 1995, he embraced Berlin life fully and didn’t think much of his homeland that, in his words, “didn’t want him.” When starting his new life in Berlin, however, he discovered that he really hadn’t left. Pozo recalled how
Arriving in Berlin was like arriving in a place where my language was being spoken. Most of the artists came from a past very similar to mine. They came from the GDR, which disappeared but, as in Cuba, we shared the same cartoons, the same films and projects of socialist collectivism. It was like a moment of harmony with my past, a response to something that came into my work.
Paradoxically, even though he was in exile, he found the home he had lost in Berlin; the city was simultaneously new and known. For Pozo, there is always a Havana in Berlin and vice versa; in his art, the two cities became an ever-shifting palimpsest.
Pozo told me how it is through the conflict between Utopia and Dystopia that his work is established. He explained that this conflict is particularly accessible amongst the layers of history and tragedy that cover both of his post-revolutionary homes. Indeed, in Pozo’s paintings, as in the cityscapes of Berlin and Havana, the artist finds remnants of the collision between the glories of the revolution and its debilitating demise—and by putting these apparent opposites together, utopia and dystopia are activated in their full sense as one and the same.
Violence is inherent to the imposition of an ideal, especially after it is has been proven to not be working. According to Pozo, the leaders of a revolution will hold onto its righteousness at all costs, even after the people have become more oppressed than they were under the conditions they had been liberated from. The artist represents this violence particularly through his treatment of his canvases. He told me how, “you cannot speak of ruin without transmitting the idea of the ruin.” Here, abrasions reign, parts are rubbed out and painted over again with the all out cancellation of a house-paint roller; and the ubiquitous scratches, simultaneously linear and chaotic, cut into the surface with a metal tip reminiscent of a geography compass transcribe the assault of the oblivious hubris of absolute control.
Primarily a representational painter, Pozo particularly likes to feature children in his work. But these are not your ordinary children; indeed, these are the children that define normalcy. From the annals of past advertising and communist propaganda, Pozo digs up utopian children along with their underlying evil. In “Heaven,” the idealized Aryan girl-child moves towards us out of the painting, menacing in her saccharine. She is perfectly pig tailed and decidedly creepy. Her eyes penetrate and follow us when we dare to move away from the painting and her. Nevertheless, despite her unflinching determination to keep control, the little girl floats from the base that once held her monumental, taking a chunk of it with her as a skirt. And her construction rubs through, decorated with rococo that reaches towards her neck as a suffocating vine while she holds on tight in her exhumed state of decomposition.
“The Makers” features two other specimens of youthful perfection, this time in the form of young men, doing what young men are supposed to do: prepare for acts of conquest. Unlike the so-absolutely-Aryan little girl in “Heaven,” however, these boys could be Cuban or they could be German; such an either/ or doesn’t really matter, though, as the artist’s interpretation of power would be the same coming from any site of a domination training school. The young men are fully committed to their mission to build a giant Kaiser helmet, the foreground boy expressing his fierce focus as he carves the crest of “Vaterland” (Fatherland) while the background boy works with corresponding dedication. More rococo emerges as stylized worms in the muted tones of Soviet propaganda posters on top of the scratches that fly out unfettered from the controlled space of sharp lines and zealots in training.
Remnants of Russian Constructivism are often present in Pozo’s work. However, unlike the geometric thrusts and unemotional bent of the early 20th Century, Pozo’s 21st Century take has not only been fragmented, it is also highly emotional. In “Prometheus,” the artist has peopled his canvas with archetypes. The father affectionately pats together the geometric cubes of compartmentalized and efficient living; the pregnant mother reaches towards him, in a gesture of eternal pleading, surrounded by children with newspaper-hewed expressions of confusion and despondency along with the daughter’s outright distraction and indifference. The father is a part of his constructions, fades into them, while the mother and children seem to rise out of the continuation of history. And yet, this maternal huddle is attached and detached at the same time, a painted collage, ambivalent in its coming and going.
“The Model” and “La Construcción de la Cruz” (The Construction of the Cross) both feature ludicrous bars of metal. In “The Model,” Pozo has constructed an abstract remnant of the graphic utilitarianism that was so much a part of Communist propaganda. A metallic bouquet juts out of an ambiguous blimp form that has a touch of what could have been a globe but is now deflating into what can pass for an ass. The ends have been chopped off of their pseudo stems and what remains confronts us with squared off “OH’s.” However, members of the German swim team in “La Construcción de la Cruz” has plucked one of these linear forms and, in their painting, it is now absolutely a metal bar that is destined to build its forced utopia. And they march across their dilapidated poster, bathing caps morphed into artillery helmets, all three once Olympic swimmers giving their all to move this symbolic vestige of control. The leader’s over-determined stoicism and perplexingly blue leg initiates heartbreak, as there seems to be no reason whatsoever as to why they are carrying the metal bar, despite the fact that the title has revealed the divine purpose.
Pozo related how “Cuba is an imaginary for everyone and that everyone seems to have an opinion about it”— even though they have most likely never been there. Like East Berlin having been cloistered behind an unsurpassable wall for three decades, Cuba continues to be cut off from the rest of the world; not only by water, but also by travel bans, lack of technology, and international sanctions that were loosened under Obama but recently tightened up again by the current US administration. However, ironically, when something is withheld, it enters the realm of fascination and fantasy and becomes more present than it would have been otherwise.
For the Cuban born artist, too, who has spent half of his life locked out of his origins, Cuba began to drift into the fantastic realm of the imaginary; and it is through the act of painting that the artist interprets a landscape that flourishes in a world that can no longer be accessed. There are no volcanoes in Cuba, but there is in this one. “Untitled: Forbidden Landscape” is a postcard that was never sent, its existence fading upon inception. The palette is dark, dulled, very un-Cuba, but still has an energy that leaps forth with an urgency that cannot be fully apprehended.
This lost and ever-present landscape is a nostalgic swoon. However, any unrequited romance is problematized by an incongruous graphic form that shoots out of the volcano, as absurd as a human cannonball. Pozo told me that he is interested in how you can put two things together in order to evoke something else—and it is especially by representing the contentions of history that his paintings are brought to life. In this piece, he forces two conflicting symbols to co-exist within the same frame: the fleeting imposition of control upon the now romanticized wilderness of before. “Untitled: Forbidden Landscape” narrates a contemporary version of the Cuban revolution where the wilderness returns in its absence and an impossible volcano expels its communist past. And, yet, this could be the hopeful version. In a gesture of unresolvable ambivalence, the instrument of control could also be headed in the other direction.
“Aero,” on the other hand, is re-called as a deserted island acid trip. The painting jumps forth with the force of something that is hidden from view becoming hyper-real. Amidst the tropical hues imbued with the dirty colors of Berlin is a version of Robinson Crusoe’s fraudulent, uncharted lands. A possible shipwreck hovers pre-wreckage in a shape of a rocket ship; two graphic spheres rise from the horizon and, if we try to make sense of them, they could be a bloated sun with its doppelgänger moon about to bombard the beach. Meanwhile, the monogrammed title, which could have so easily been put on straight, is off kilter, as the Spanish word “Aero” announces that this poignancy is made of air.
Even though Pozo has stated that the paintings in Hurricane Over Sugar and After the Storm are the first time he has focused so fully on Cuba since his exile, Berlin is ever-present. Like the artist’s life, all of the paintings contain layers of both—except for “Horizon.” In a lonely landscape, the three-part minimalism provides the space for the painting to embody the exquisite heartbreak of existence being a conflation of vulnerability and resilience.
“Horizon” is pure hurricane over sugar, an absolute blend of the human capacity to be both delighted and devastated—but this is Pozo’s version. Freed of Sartre’s sentimentalization, “Horizon” shows us a revolution that is always more than what it clings to. Through his praxis of digging back into history in order to interpret the present’s folding into the future, Pozo has painted three women dressed in the double-dealing innocence of the early 20th Century. He sullies their purity with black. The women stand looking towards a horizon, simultaneously attached to and severed from a sunny yellow form that begins as a linear entrapment and ripens into carnal curves. Their feet are cut off; two are one-legged; but all three rise up out of the space they are simultaneously of and brutalized by. On the horizon, in the direction of their curious and expectant gazes, there is only a black blot: a simple smudge of paint, the same as those that blaspheme their once crisp cotton. Here is Pozo’s ‘something:’ a threatening presence that everyone waits for without knowing what dimensions it will take. Correspondingly, in keeping with this artist’s 21st Century Constructionism, the three women watch, wait and live the inevitable return of the next storm. WM
Karen Moe is an art critic, visual and performance artist, author and feminist activist. Her work focuses on systemic violence in patriarchy: be it gender, race, the environment or speciesism. Her art criticism has been published internationally in magazines, anthologies and artist catalogues in English and Spanish and she has exhibited and performed across Canada, in the US and in Mexico. She is the founder of the Vigilance Fierce Feminisms Magazine and the blog The Logical Feminist. She is the author of Victim: A Feminist Manifesto from a Fierce Survivor 2022. Karen lives in Mexico City and British Columbia, Canada.
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